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Panthers 2019-20 Rookie Camp Preview

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

Before the big boys show up for training camp, the kids will get a chance to shine.

The last proving ground for prospects before main camp opens on Friday, the future stars of the Florida Panthers will flock to the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs on Tuesday and Wednesday this week for a chance to get a head start on the competition at the team's annual rookie camp.

From first-round picks to undrafted free agents, the two-day camp will feature 25 total prospects (15 forwards, eight defenseman and two goaltenders), including four skaters that have suited up in at least one game with the Panthers and six players from the organization's 2019 draft class.

For the full rookie camp roster, click HERE.

Looking at that list, there are some names you likely already know such as former top draft picks Henrik Borgstrom (23rd overall, 2016), Owen Tippett (10th overall, 2017), Aleksi Heponiemi (40th overall, 2017) and Serron Noel (34th overall, 2018), but also plenty more you probably don't.

That being said, rookie camp isn't about where a prospect came from.

It's about where they're going.

Panthers centers Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck had completely different roads to the NHL -- the former a second-overall pick and the latter a third-round diamond in the rough - but they both had to pay their dues at rookie camp before sharing the ice at BB&T Center.

Who will make their mark at this year's camp?

It really could be anyone, but here are a few names definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Henrik Borgstrom

Of all the prospects at this year's rookie camp, none have more NHL experience than Borgstrom.

The 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, the center produced eight goals and 10 assists in 50 games during his rookie campaign in 2018-19 with the Panthers, earning a call-up to the big club after posting 22 points in 24 games during an All-Star season with the club's AHL affiliate.

After arriving to South Florida, the 22-year-old was able to get a taste of the team's top-six when Vincent Trocheck missed an extended amount of time due to injury. In the 15 games he saw the ice while Trocheck was out, he recorded six points and averaged 15:06 of ice time per contest.

In 35 games following Trocheck's return, he notched 12 points while skating 10:41 per game.

Heading into the summer, Borgstrom, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds in April, said that his biggest goal during the offseason wasn't necessarily to pack on more weight, but rather simply "get a bit stronger," adding that he hoped to eventually weigh in at around 200 pounds.

"I'm not too far off," he said. "I don't really concentrate too much on what my weight is. It's nice if I get there, but the main thing is to get stronger. When you work out every day during the summer, you see how strong you can get. That's important for me. It's part of the process."

Expected to play an important role on the Panthers this season, rookie camp will be the first chance the team gets to see how much progress Borgstrom has made over the past months.

Owen Tippett

Drafted 10th overall by the Panthers in 2017, Tippett will make the jump to the pros this season.

In his final tour of the junior ranks, the fiery young forward amassed 33 goals and a career-high 41 assists in 54 regular-season games in 2018-19. Traded from Mississauga to Saginaw for a package that included six draft picks on Jan. 5, the 20-year-old went on to lead the Spirit all the way to the semifinals of the OHL playoffs while producing 11 goals and a team-high 22 points.

At the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, he tallied two goals and two assists in five games, earning a heaping of praise from various media outlets despite Canada falling short of a medal.

"He played on their top line, played on their first power-play unit and played to his identity as a shooter," Panthers Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala said of Tippett after the World Juniors concluded in January. "He played hard."

Heading into rookie camp, Tippett joins Borgstrom as the only prospects with multiple games of NHL experience already under their belt. He made the Panthers roster during his first post-draft season in 2017-18, scoring one goal in seven games before being sent back to his junior club.

At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Tippett, who already possess the size and shot of an NHL player, is eager to show the Panthers the strides he's taken toward improving his overall 200-foot game.

"I want to show what I'm capable of," Tippett said during the team's annual development camp back in June. "I want to show them that I've taken their notes that they had on me and kind of worked on that and proved to them that I worked on that."

Aleksi Heponiemi

It's been a while since fans have seen Heponiemi in person, but the time has finally arrived.

After tearing up opposing goalies in the WHL for two seasons, the 20-year-old spent the 2018-19 campaign fine-tuning his game in his native Finland while competing in Liiga, the top league in the country. Going head-to-head with grown men every night, he did more than hold his own.

Racking up 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 50 games with Liiga runner-up Karpat, the 2017 second-round pick led all rookies in scoring yet finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Kaapo Kakko, who was drafted by the New York Rangers with the second overall pick in June.

Going from diamond in the rough to the darling of prospect gurus around the NHL, Heponiemi's coming out party came at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship. Leading the tournament in scoring with nine points (three goals, six assists), he helped pilot Team Finland to a gold medal.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and around 150 pounds, Heponiemi's size has yet to hold him back, as his skills have shined through at each stage of his career up until this point. Putting pen to paper on a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers in May, he will look to continue proving doubters wrong when he makes the leap from Liiga to the pros in North America in 2019-20.

"We are thrilled to have agreed to terms with Aleksi," Panthers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Dale Tallon said in a release after Heponiemi's signing. "He is an immensely skilled and dynamic player with excellent vision and hockey IQ. Aleksi has been an elite player at every level and a leader on winning teams on the junior and international stages."

Serron Noel

If you're looking for a wildcard at rookie camp, it's Noel.

An absolute beast at 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds (that's without skates!), the hulking forward really took his game to another level in 2018-19. In 68 regular-season games with the OHL's Oshawa Generals, the 2018 second-round pick set new career-highs in both goals (34) and assists (47).

Named Oshawa's top forward, he helped the Generals battle all the way to the semifinals of the OHL playoffs, registering four goals and 11 points, including a pair of goals on the power play.

"I'm just focusing on getting better, talking to the coaches and learning much as I can at this camp," Noel, who inked a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on March 8, said at development camp. "I'm going to train hard this summer and try and give myself the best shot at being here full-time.

"It's really exciting. It's all based off what I do...I'm going to keep working and keep getting better here and then try to come into main camp and turn some heads a little bit… It starts now and then continues every day from now."

Last year, Noel played in one preseason game before being sent back to the OHL. Still just 19 years old, he's working to stick around longer this time around and leave a good impression as he pushes for a roster spot.

"You never know," Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe said of Noel following development camp. "He could open up some eyes at camp here and stick around a little while."

Brady Keeper

One of the most-intriguing stories from last season is about to begin another chapter.

The first member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation to make it to the NHL, Keeper inked an entry-level contract and made his NHL debut with the Panthers at the tail end of last season, skating 12:40 while playing on the team's third-defensive pairing during the one game he saw action.

"I'm just really happy to get a chance to play in the NHL," Keeper said after his debut, a 5-2 road win over the Ottawa Senators on March 28. "My family and them are probably proud of me, my community back home and other aboriginal people.

"I'm just really excited to play. I have no words to explain how I feel. I'm just really happy… I just tried to keep it simple… Once the game got going, I felt comfortable. That's what happened. I played pretty well and I'm glad we got the two points… I've just got to get stronger and keep it simple."

Prior to joining the Panthers as an undrafted free agent on March 18, Keeper spent two seasons at the University of Maine, where he registered 13 goals and 31 assists in 77 games. In his final collegiate campaign, he led all Black Bears defensemen goals (7), assists (15) and points (22).

Having already made his debut, the 23-year-old is working hard to become an NHL regular.

"I've got to come in here every day and work hard, either in the gym or on the ice," Keeper said at development camp. "It's what everybody else has to do. I've got to try and do something to play better."

Riley Stillman

Stillman has checked off more a than a few boxes on his pro hockey checklist.

The son of former Panther Cory Stillman, Riley was drafted by Florida in the fourth round of the 2016 NHL Draft. After manning the blue line for four seasons with Oshawa and Hamilton in the OHL, the 21-year-old turned pro last season and eventually made both his AHL and NHL debut.

Beginning the 2018-19 campaign with the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds, he tallied four goals and 13 assists in 59 games, with his 17 points standing out as the 21st-most among the league's rookie defensemen. But if you only count blueliners under the age of 21, he actually ranked 12th.

Earning his first call-up to the Panthers on Feb. 26, he made his NHL debut that same day in Arizona, leading the club with five hits while skating 11:22 in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Coyotes.

Stillman was a member of the Jr. Panthers throughout his father's tenure in South Florida.

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind," Stillman said after his debut. "I got a call late last night that said I was going up, probably one of the best calls of my life I've had yet to date. I was excited. Didn't sleep much last night, but was able to get up, get going and get here."

Going into his second pro season, he'll hope to add some more NHL games to his resume.

Ryan Bednard

It's safe to say that Florida's summer was dominated by goaltending news.

There was the retirement of future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo, the selection of the uber-talented Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick in June's draft and, of course, the earth-shattering free agent singing of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky on July 1.

That being said, Bednard is also hoping to make some headlines down the road.

A seventh-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the 22-year-old goaltender is entering his first pro season after piecing together the defining campaign of his collegiate career in 2018-19. In 32 games manning the crease Bowling Green as a junior, he ranked fourth in the nation in goals-against average (1.77), tied for ninth in wins (20) and tied for 10th in save percentage (.927).

Using his 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame to make the net almost disappear, he backstopped the Falcons to their first NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament appearance since 1990. Following the tournament's completion, he signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Florida on April 2.

"Ryan is a big, athletic, young goaltender who had an excellent year for Bowling Green," Tallon said in a release following Bednard's signing. "Among some of the top goaltenders in college hockey this season, Ryan showed tremendous growth. He adds further depth to our organization at the goaltending position and we look forward to him continuing his development with the Florida Panthers."

With his first pro season on the horizon, Bednard will be joining Samuel Montembeault and Chris Driedger in an increasingly talented and crowded goaltending pool behind Bobrovsky.

Vladislav Kolyachonok

The highest-drafted player from Florida's 2019 draft class attending this year's rookie camp, Kolyachonok will be looking to build off a solid showing at his first development camp in June.

A second-round pick at the draft in Vancouver earlier this summer, the 18-year-old native of Minsk, Belarus registered four goals and 25 assists in 53 games with the OHL's Flint Firebirds during his first season in North America. Prior to that, he'd spent the previous two years honing his skills back overseas, playing with U-17 and U-18 squads in the Belarusian Extraleague B.

At the 2019 U-18 IIHF World Junior Championship, Kolyachonok produced at a point-per-game pace, racking up a goal and four assists over five tournament games while captaining Belarus.

"I want to be better in every part of my game, especially my offense, my conditioning and my shot," said Kolyachonok, who is determined to build up his 6-foot-2, 187-pound frame, said at development camp. "This is a big summer for me. I want to show up in August and September."

Kolyachonok describes himself as a two-way defenseman, but added during an interview at the draft that he wants to improve a bit on offense in order to become a more well-rounded skater.

Just dipping his toe into the NHL experience, he'll be presented with plenty of new challenges during his first rookie camp as he works alongside and goes head-to-head with other prospects.

Following rookie camp, the Panthers will launch their 2019-20 training camp on Friday.

Click HERE to view Florida's training camp schedule and roster.

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